As your host prepares to do something he's never done before on this Website, an open thread is herewith offered to give readers a place to say what's on their minds and to speak their peace.
I shan't tell you what it is I'm trying to do, and the reason is that I'm not altogether sure I can accomplish it; not, that is, without moving Heaven and Earth. The Heaven part would be easy, what with how light and airy that place is supposed to be. It's the Earth part that poses the challenge, what with the lithosphere and all those metals and clays and people weighing it down.
Nevertheless, stepping back from the Herculean aspects of what I'm planning, I think I can get the project done and posted, maybe this weekend if I'm lucky. It's actually part of a larger project I've undertaken, one that has to do with my other life, the one where I'm a professor.
Although I long for the old days when I could teach with a blackboard and a piece of chalk, that time has passed, and now college teaching is fast becoming a battle to stay in front of new technology and try to keep it from overrunning the core of my craft. The obsession with this
new technology and that
new technology is driving me to distraction: companies marketing their latest wares are bad enough, but they find such a receptive audience in higher education, especially among the "IT" (information technology) insiders who swear to God in front of the administrative purse-holders that we simply must
have the latest, or that we simply cannot do
without the coolest. And, of course, I come off looking like some latter-day Luddite when I growl that I don't need it, I don't want it, and I won't use it if it's purchased.
The argument doesn't last long. The marketing types join forces with the IT folks, and together they pull out the Death Pulse: "It will make your job as a teacher easier." That's when enough of the facultydeprived of memories of previous promises like that or too young to know that new technology doesn't really work that wayall run like a herd to the watering trough of the newest toys, gadgetry, and even methods that "incorporate technology into the classroom."
This all never would have happened if Bill Gates and his Microsoft crew had been forced to sit through a four-year college education with PowerPoint Professors. They would all now be dead from the boredom in their college classes, or they would have become middle-class workers in the financial services sector. (But I repeat myself, there.)
So, here I am, trying to work out for my own purposes the details of how to deploy some Information Age technology, and I'm hoping to use this Website as my demonstration prototype. Rest assured that, even if I pull this off, it's not going to be perfect; but at the same time, I won't deploy it here if it's less than adequate.
Speaking of teaching, several weeks ago I had an interesting new experience. At one of the schools where I teach, we have a day several times a year when we bring in kids in grades five and six to do math and science stuff. These math mini-camps always comprise six stations, each in its own classroom on campus, where a professor and assistants spend thirty minutes with each group having the kids do something math-related. The kids come from various schools in the area, and each school group moves from station to station through the day. At the end, we have a big group assembly where we show them something very cool that has to do with physics and mathematics applied to a real-world, fairly dramatic situation. (Think "conservation of momentum.")
At my station, the kids learn about measuring, calculating costs, and determining profit. They make Kool-Aid, and they must "pay" for the sugar, water, and drink mix they use, and they must then have judges determine how much they can charge for their drink based upon how good the final product is. Each school group that comes in is broken into four teams, each of which works against the clock to get the product made and judged. Generally speakingpartly because I play the role of a bellowing, high-strung professor who lets them go hog-wild as they do their workthe kids really love the project, especially the part where I have to try their drinks. There have been times when I took a swig and nearly choked to death, either because the drink was so sweet it could rot teeth, or because it was so sour it sucked all the mucous out of my face.
We've been doing these math mini-camps for more than a few years, now, and they always go off without a hitch. From these brief encounters with ten- and eleven-year-olds, along with the occasional tutoring I do of kids this age and the fact that I used to teach at a private K-12 school, I have learned a little bit about how children work, think, and (to some extent) learn.
This math mini-camp I just did was a little different from usual. This was the first time we had as one of the "school" groups a community of home-schoolers and Montessori school attendees. Apparently, the parents of these kids constitute a very close-knit, identifiable, real community of child-rearers out in this part of the country. I had no idea.
As I understand it, there was some kind of request made to the administration, possibly including some degree of political pressure, for the college to recognize this learning community and to acknowledge it as meriting a slot in the math mini-camp just like we would give to a traditional school. I don't know exactly how that worked, nor do I want to.
The day started off a little different. We always show the kids a movie and have them eat before the mini-camp begins. This time, our plan to show one of the Harry Potter
movies was shot down: the home-schooler/Montessori parents nixed that one. Ditto for Pirates of the Caribbean
. Fortunately, we have some old, G-rated, non-controversial stuff in the library, so we got through that issue without much of a hitch.
It then occurred to a couple of the station leaders that content would have to be modified: references to evolution at the genetics station were pulled, as was a discussion of the time frames for ice ages at the weather analysis station.
I didn't have to worry about any of that at my station, so I figured there would be no differences between the traditional school groups and the home-schooler/Montessori group. As it turned out, I was wrong.
Unlike the kids from traditional schoolswho come into my classroom yakking excitedly, flying everywhere with their teachers and my assistants trying their best to get them seated into equal-sized groups at the four tables I've set upthe home-schooler/Montessori kids came in quietly, their mothers following. There were five of these mothers, three with infants and toddlers in arms. The women were dressed in a way I cannot describe as exactly "conservative" so much as almost (for lack of a better word) "poor"or, maybe more accurately, "joyless": no bright colors, nothing pretty, no effort to dress up at all for the day. It was almost like costumeno, it was
costume; it was a statement
, both about beliefs and about class statusand it was so striking, even in its subtlety. Only one of these mothers would even look at me, so I had to have the assistants explain to them how the station goes in terms of process and objectives: the kids at each table constitute a team that has to work quickly and cooperatively to make a pitcher of Kool-Aid using ingredients in a cost-efficient way to produce a final product to be judged for how much people might pay for it.
The kids obediently sat down at their tables. I began my usual hollering, thundering, act-crazy routine, which always elicits laughing, talking, and general mayhem. From these kids, though, I got only reserved chuckles.
"Fine," I thought to myself, "I'll go for the grand finale before they get to work on their project." My station is conducted in one of our big biology labs. In one corner is a full-sized mannequin with the skin off in the front to show the internal organs. The back is just a normal mannequin, complete with a naked ass. I always say, "We're about to begin, and I want you to have FUN
," as I walk over to the mannequin, which I then grab and whirl around as I say, "BUT!!!
" and pointing to the dummy's backside, I look at the kids and growl, "...and this is a BIIIIIG BUTT
... don't make a mess!"
Usually, the kids roar with laughter; but not these home schoolers and Montessoris. Quite a few of them almost did, trying their best not to look at their mothers, who were glaring alternately at them and at me. The kids held their laughter in check.
Oh, well. So much for that
. I bellowed, "GO!
Get your drinks made!"
Now, at this point the room usually turns into a fine example of chaos, with kids running up to me to fill their pitchers with water, everyone arguing and yelling about who's going to do what, how much sugar should be put in, how much drink mix should be added, what goes in first, who's going to keep track of how much cost is being accumulated, and all that. But these home schoolers and Montessoris weren't like that, not at all. For several minutes, there was almost no movement at any of the four tables. Eventually, at three of the tables I saw what were probably latent, social dominance-oriented personality types emerge to try to coordinate action. The fourth table seemed to have no such individual, so there was an absence of anyone who could take a leadership role. I sent two assistants to that table to help the kids get going.
At every one of the four tables, each of which had five kids, there were at least two who simply refused to participate in the activity. They just sat there, not so much defiantly ashow should I put it?maybe petulantly: they just weren't going to be involved in this. Some of them looked like they were on the verge of tears, and my efforts, along with those of the assistants, to try to pull them into the group activity failed miserably, in part because the groups, themselves, were not "naturally" organizing, which would have been necessary for any meaningful effort of members to help someone feel welcome and needed.
The thirty minutes seemed to drag by, unlike how it always is with the classes of traditional school kids, wherein I'm in a heart-stopping race to get everything accomplished in the lousy half-hour I've got. But here's the thing: these home schooler/Montessori kids actually got finished sooner than other kids do.
Much more importantly, the math calculations with which the traditionally schooled kids struggle were done by these home schooled and Montessori kids without batting an eye. Now, I'm talking literally
about most traditionally schooled ten- and eleven-year-olds having serious problems doing ten cents plus one cent plus thirty-nine cents! Only a few of the traditionally schooled kids have any sophistication whatsoever in either organizing quantitative information or knowing what to do with it. It's not that they cannot add and subtract; most of them can, at least to a limited extent. Instead, it's that they don't see arithmetic having any connection to the information in front of them.
Not these home-schooled and Montessori kids, though. They had their math skills down pat. Most of the kids had done the math on their own. In fact, any part of the entire project they could do on their own, they did, and that's because they had no investment in their group, even though their final product had to be a group effort.
As many obvious and subtle differences between these kids and those who are schooled traditionally as I thought I had seen up to that point, more were about to go on display. Traditionally schooled kids almost invariably make drinks that come in at a per-cup cost of anywhere between twenty-two cents and a little under a dollar. However, every one of the four tables of home schooled and Montessori kids came in at under twelve
cents per cup! In fact, they all came in at almost identical
per-cup costs of eleven cents, with one group hitting ten cents. This consistency from one table to the next was striking, and the difference between how these kids used resources and how traditionally schooled kids used resources was remarkable.
But here's the upshot. The judges rate the drinks on a scale of one to four: a one means the drink will sell for five cents per cup; a two means the drink will sell for fifteen cents per cup; a three means the drink will sell for a quarter a cup; and a four means the drink will sell for fifty cents per cup. Usually, the ratings on the drinks are threes. We give a two if a drink doesn't taste very good, and we give a one if we really, really don't want to take another sip to make sure it's as bad as it tasted on the first try. Every one of the home schooler/Montessori groups got a one; and not only that, I'll tell you right now, that was being generous. I mean, I have no idea what they did, but somehow those drinks were uniformly the most awful stuff I had ever tasted in all the times I have run that station at math mini-camp.
The judges got together at the front of the room and bitched in whispers about how bad the stuff was that they'd just put in their mouths. I knew very well I wasn't going to be able to tell those kidsespecially with their mothers right therethat their drinks sucked; so, without losing a beat, I stepped forward and hollered, "You all got the same rating! Let's have a big round of applause for yourselves! Congratulations!" I was thinking to myself, "Please, Lord, don't let anyone ask what the score was. Fortunately, just then, the next group arrived at the door, and one of my assistants bellowed, "Alright, it's time to head on over to the next station!"
Talk about being saved by the bell.
The rest of the day went as usual: total bedlam, yelling; laughing; drinks spilled; kids running up to tell me this, that and the other stuff about themselvesjust delightful insanity, and a good dose of what learning can be like once in a great while.
One thing is still bothering me. Whenever the groups assemble to leave and go to their next station, I always have the chance to get hugged by some of the kids, and a few of the boys give me a glance that means I need to go up to them, take the smile off my face and replace it with a slightly serious look, and reach out with one of my big paws for a firm handshake with their small paws. "See you in about eight years," I like to say. Fifth and six graders aren't quite old enough to pretend approval of adults doesn't mean anything to them. I didn't have the chance to give any good-byeshugs, handshakes, or even simple, big smilesto those home-schooled and Montessori kids; but even though I feel bad about that, I honestly don't think it would have mattered to them if I had taken the opportunity to give some praise, pats on the back, and invitations to come again when they're ready for college. As long as those kids are under the watchful eye of their parents twenty-four hours a day, they have all the approval of adults they'll ever need... at least until they grow up.
If they're ever allowed to, that is.
This is an open forum. Talk about anything. I have special events planned for the evening, including a Kool-Aid tasting game if anyone's interested. Later, we'll turn up the house lights and have a contest to see who can act the most like a Democratic congressperson saying the word "impeachment" without breaking into a cold sweat.
If the crowd gets rowdy, we might have a round of "fantasy combat." That's where you have to describe exactly where you'd like to see George W. Bush and Dick Cheney get dropped into a combat zone in Iraq. Will it be a patrol in al-Anbar province? an IED bomb squad in downtown Baghdad? a poorly armored Humvee that's gotten off the main road near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit? You decide! Where would our President and Vice President best serve their country by bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East?
And, no, you don't get to choose strapping them to the nuclear bombs Israel is going to drop on Iran. The nukes these days are too small to carry extra payload. Chickenhawks mess up the aerodynamics of bombs they're tied to just as much as they mess up the future of the nations they latch themselves
The Dark Wraith opens the espresso bar for the night's activities.